Make your playground a rich learning environment

  • Make your playground a rich learning environment

it’s not only little children who benefit from inspiring outside spaces, argues juno hollyhock…

For most early years and primary children, outdoor play is a regular and significant part of the school day. Early years staff understand that a child’s early learning experience is stimulated and guided by inquisitive, free play, and primary schools introduce good quality outdoor play experiences in a variety of engaging and creative ways. These experiences spill back into the classroom, complementing the work done there. Schools who have invested in outdoor play have found that the change in thinking and attitude has been larger than the physical changes to the playground. To watch children play in a space that occupies and diverts the mind, challenges the body and allows opportunities for quiet personal or social space, is to see the potential of our children as creative, confident, responsible, resilient and effective learners. At first look, our secondary age children’s experience of play is radically different. This should not be surprising, as our children’s mental, social and physical development into teenage years will mean different expressions of play. However, much of the difference in experience is down to those in charge of the policies, attitudes promoted and spaces provided. Secondary ‘playgrounds’ are often of the bleak tarmac variety. They feature large open spaces with little shelter. It seems that the educational principles and wellbeing benefits that we think are so important in early years and primary years evaporate in six weeks of summer holiday as our pupils transit.

Issues and actions

So how do we encourage secondary aged children to get out and about in break and lunch times? There are a range of barriers, these include:

  • Perceptions – ‘playing’ is often deemed as something that younger children do and is not a term with which older children will necessarily want to be associated.
  • Image – this becomes increasingly important with age and the thought of being seen to be active and running around can in itself be a barrier.
  • Environment – often the biggest barrier, the way an outdoor environment is designed at secondary school directly impacts on how well or otherwise it is used. The best way to understand this is to look at the outdoor space you have at school and then compare it with your garden at home if you have one. What are the features that make your garden an appealing place to be, and how can these be introduced into the school’s outdoor space? Comfort is a particular issue, is there somewhere to sit and talk, somewhere sheltered?
  • Clothing – uniforms at secondary school are often more restrictive than those at primary they tend to get dirty more easily and restrict free movement. It’s hard to keep the shirt tucked in and the tie done up if you are running around or playing; we need to consider how our school uniform policies might be directly impacting on how physically active our children are at break and lunch times.
  • Boredom – if there is nothing to do outside then it is going to be hard to attract children out there in the first place. We all need things to stimulate our curiosity and interest, particularly if it is cold or wet.

We can overcome some of these barriers by:

  • Modeling active behaviour – teachers who go outside, who express enthusiasm for the outdoors, and who will be active with the children outside, are the greatest asset to getting children of this age group outdoors more.
  • Thinking about how we value image in school and helping to promote positive images associated with being outside. By displaying posters and images of positive and engaging outdoor activities, maybe with current celebrities, we can help create an ethos that embraces going outside as a normal and everyday activity.
  • Investing in the outdoor environment can make a big difference – even small changes like the provision of some seating in a cosy corner or the creation of a fruit and vegetable planting area or adding some shelter can encourage children to get outside more.
  • Consider how the uniform policy might become a little more flexible during lunch and break-times, even allowing children to wear their own sweaters out of doors can prove an inducement to going out! A change of shoes or allowing trainers for outside use only can also be beneficial.
  • Providing regular outdoor activities during break and lunch times makes your outside space interesting – draw on teachers’ personal hobbies and interests to help with this and even consider bringing in local volunteers. Food is always an excellent incentive and there are many great resources available guiding schools on outdoor cooking and the use of open fires.

About The Author

Juno Hollyhock has been executive director at Learning Through Landscapses (LTL) since 2012. Become a member of LTL to gain access to the latest news in the outdoor learning sector, hundreds of downloadable guidance notes, lesson ideas and inspirational images PLUS access to LTL’s expert advice through email. All of this support to help you make a difference to your outside space for just £12 per year (plus VAT). Visit